Justice Ward Reynoldson (1920-2016): A humble judge who changed Iowa courts

By: Rox Laird on March 29th, 2016

The Iowa legal community lost a fine lawyer, judge and dogged advocate for court reform with the death Monday of former Iowa Chief Justice W. Ward Reynoldson.

Although he rose from a small practice in Osceola to the top of Iowa’s court system, Reynoldson was ever humble about his status.

Iowa Court Administrator David Boyd tells a story about when he and his wife, Nancy (who served as the chief’s executive assistant), borrowed Reynoldson’s tickets to attend an Iowa football game. When they asked the couple in the adjacent seats if they knew the Reynoldsons, the response was, “You mean the gentleman farmer and his wife from Osceola?”

Reynoldson would have cherished that description, but there is much more to his life story.

Born in St. Edward, Nebr., in 1920, Reynoldson worked odd jobs to pay his own way through high school and college at Wayne State. After WW II, he entered law school at the University of Iowa on the G.I. Bill and finished in two years by going year-around.

After practicing law in Osceola for more than two decades, which included a stint as county attorney, Reynoldson was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1971 by Gov. Robert Ray. He served as chief justice from 1978 to 1987. Reynoldson wrote 493 opinions for the Court, including an often cited insurance law ruling (C & J Fertilizer v. Allied Mutual, 1975) that, he quipped in a 2004 oral interview is “frequently cited and seldom followed.”

During his years on the Court, Iowa’s court system was pulled up from its 19th century roots, and a fragmented collection of state and local courts were brought into a unified state system. Reynoldson also fought for the state to take over clerks of court, who had been elected and paid by counties. Besides modernizing the courts, those reforms resulted in substantial local property-tax relief.

Another historic change made it easier for the public to see how Iowa’s courts function. Reynoldson appointed a commission to study allowing news media to use cameras and other recording devices in courtrooms, which led to a two-year experiment and a permanent change in 1981.

Ward Reynoldson himself became the face of Iowa’s court system beginning in 1979, when he delivered the first State of the Judiciary address to the Iowa General Assembly. And he was right for the part, with a shock of white hair, a soft drawl, and a courtly manner.

In that first legislative address, the chief justice called on the lawmakers to fully support the Third Branch:

To any extent this branch of government cannot obtain resources to fulfill our function, the public’s confidence in courts is further eroded. The implications are far reaching, for we have yet to come to the end of this experiment in self-government launched with the American Revolution. Inside our boundaries are enormous tensions which must find release in some forum, or perhaps, in some street. Outside we are challenged by ideologies at war with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. All will not turn on the courts, but if the courts fail, the rest is in doubt.

That rich mixture of history and devotion to the law and an independent judiciary, which was seen in subsequent legislative addresses and in his written opinions, was classic Ward Reynoldson: A true gentleman who shaped Iowa law, the courts and left an indelible mark on this state’s history.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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